I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, in Marin County, before
people started making fun of it, and before 100,000 dollar houses
started costing nearly a million. I grew up wanting to be three things: A
musician, a comedian, and a professional football player, preferably
all at the same time.
I used to hang out at the Record King on 4th Street in San Rafael.
That's the same corner as the old Rafael Theatre, the newsstand and the
Candy Jar. I think there's a Starbucks there now, and some store called
Papyrus or something.
I remember listening to my Dad's Flatt and Scruggs records when I was
two. And show stuff. I loved Oliver and Man of La Mancha. Then, of
course, I got into the Beatles. When I picked up the guitar, my biggest
influences were the rhythm players, particularly the Fogertys and Tom
Johnston. For years I wanted to be Tom Johnston. He was the blackest
white guy in the world to me. It was always all about rhythm, but when I
started to play lead, I got into the great rhythm players who also
played great solos, namely, Ed King and Jerry Reed.
I started my first band, The Colours, with guitarist John Hussey
(also a future member of Little America) when I was in college in Santa
Barbara. The Byrds had completely kicked my **** a few years before and
now I wanted to be Crosby and McGuinn. We wore a lot of turtlenecks and
pointy boots, and I made sure my hair was combed straight down. We won a
battle of the bands and decided to move to Los Angeles. (I had just
graduated in Philosophy and Religious studies and wasn't going to make
any money with those degrees anyway.)
Our bass player wanted to go to grad school, and our drummer was
having time problems, so John and I made the trip in my '67 Cutlass
convertible, which made it just past Carpinteria when the block cracked.
I quickly purchased the worst vehicle ever designed, the '71 VW
fastback, and we limped into L.A. under intermittent fuel injection.
John stayed with family and I moved in with my friend Mike, who
played in The Turn, a North Hollywood band on the fringe of the Paisley
Underground. Mike had a great voice, and he looked a lot like Gene Clark
did in those early Byrds records. So I started calling him "Psychedelic
Mike" even though Mike hadn't been anywhere near hallucinogenics. Mike
had a great voice and The Turn had a great drummer, Kurt Custer (later
reduced simply to Custer, for some reason). Despite the fact that Mike
had recently purchased a sitar, which sat next to the television in
their upstairs apartment ("That thing's a piece of ****," Mike's dad
would say), the four of us decided to form a new, less psychedelic band,
with two lead singers, Mike and me. We played about two gigs at Madam
Wong's as The Colours when we met Stu Sobol and Julie Shy, who had a
pretty impressive list of management credentials. Stu convinced us to
change our name from The Colours to something else. "You guys aren't
John came up with Little America and we went with that. In late 1985,
we cut some demos financed by Capitol. "Step on Fire" (later changed to
"Walk on Fire"), "Standin' on Top" and "Lost Along the Way". "Walk on
Fire" was Mike's, and would prove to be our big hit. The last two were
mine-"solid rockers to round it out," Stu said. Capitol passed after a
miserable showcase, but Geffen and Chrysalis both wanted to sign Little
America. We settled on Geffen for one major reason: The Plimsouls were
on Geffen and they were cool, and the coolest act on Chrysalis was Robin
Trower, and the label had dropped him.
We ended up using the demo version of "Walk On Fire" for the album
and it reached #10 on the AOR charts. We made a video, did some TV
shows, and toured for seven months in a yellow Winnebago with no air
conditioning. We had a VCR on board with two movies, "Spinal Tap", which
we watched everyday, and "Big Trouble In Little China", which we
didn't. We were huge in Dallas. Big in the midwest, and completely
unknown in Philadelphia. See Pic
After shows, I seemed to attract strange girls. One kept following me
around, calling me by her ex-boyfriend's name. "Michael, Don't leave me
again. Michael!" Another thought she could predict the future by
reading the bone in my elbow. Still another would not leave until I
autographed her breast.
Our first album sold 100,000 units, but the second album,
"Fairgrounds", tanked at 20,000, and Geffen dropped us. I went back to
being a truck driver for awhile, and Kurt (who was still, simply,
"Custer") and I decided to form our own thing. We called ourselves
Custer and Logan. We figured nobody knew who Simon and Garfunkel were in
the beginning either, so it was OK.
In 1993, we released our first and only CD, the music being a radical
departure from the arena rock Little America sound. With the production
in our hands, we were able to create a much more earthy, grass roots
album. We were actually going for a more organic, almost "lo-fi" sound.
The lyrics got better, the sound a bit more unique.
Unfortunately, our momentum was hindered a bit by Kurt's drum gig
with Lynyrd Skynyrd. Recording became more sporadic-shows even more so. I
still dug it in a way because Cus was being recognized for his talent,
and I got to hang with Ed King and Gary Rossington , but I hated that
In late '94, we decided to move from LA to Nashville. Kurt had left
Skynyrd, wanting to put his full attention to our project. We felt
certain our "CSN/Beatles/Creedence" type sound would floor people. Ed
and Gary liked us. Steve Earle liked us. Kurt played drums on the "I
Feel Alright" album and we did our harmony thing on "More Than I Can
Do", but nothing happened.
Kurt and I formed a comic band The Johnsons as a way to laugh off the
stress. We decided that our girlfriends, not us, should sing most of
the lead vocals. Everybody's last name would be Johnson, except for me. I
would be McJohnson, because I'm Scottish. Anything went. The only rule
was: Instrumentally, we would play our asses off. There were plenty of
inside jokes for musicians. Chromatic diminished chords, ridiculous
modulations, oblique Beatle references, drums crashing on every syllable
of the vocal, and tons of sound effects and filthy lyrics. After
completing The Johnsons: "Hi. We're the Johnsons. Nice to meet you",
Kurt moved back to LA.
Now I wanted to make my own record. "Shadow On My Trail" had been a
finalist in the 1998 John Lennon Songwriting Contest, and with the prize
money, I put together my studio, and started recording the next track
"Congratulations". For the next two and a half years, that's what I did.
In my free time I recorded and worked on my Mustang, but rarely at the
same time. I didn't play a single show. I'd spend hours on a phrase
until it suited me just fine. "The hardest part of writing is
re-writing", Steve Earle told me once. I mixed and remixed and scrapped
and started over. I sent master tapes to LA with a click track, and Kurt
played drums on them and sent them back. Mostly though, I wanted to
make do without drums…keep it bare, intimate and a little lonely. In
2001, I placed again in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest with "Money
1, Soul 0", this time as a runner-up, and it gave me a renewed
"Last Dance On The Wild Frontier" was released in March of '02 to
quite a few favorable reviews, though I think the folk/blues bare-bones
sound may have baffled a Little America fan or two. To be honest, I
wasn't a fan of how those Little America records sounded at the time.
Don't get me wrong. I loved the songs, but I always thought we came off a
bit like we were playing in a giant handball court. My current
recordings are actually more a reflection of what I'd always envisioned,
though I have more trouble writing those upbeat rave-ups now. I'm a
little more reflective......and I don't want to pull a muscle.
So now I've got a new one, "Ride". This is pretty much a culmination
of the recordings I made between April, 2002 up until April of 2006,
with the exception of "Na Na Na", which came from the early '92 Custer
and Logan archives. I flew Cus out to play drums on "Ominous" and "Soul
Inspiration", and then it was mix time. A few more songwriting accolades
on this one as well (See Song School), and of course, Ed playing slide
on "Ominous" and "Mr Wizard" definitely ramped things up for me.
Again, I'll be popping up locally in Nashville, playing some shows to keep the chops up and I hope to see you!